Arbella Stuart: Life Story

Chapter 1: Birth and Lineage

In 1574, Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, visited her friend Bess Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury at Rufford Abbey, one of the many properties owned by Bess’s husband, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. The two women had known each other for at least thirty years, Bess having, in her youth, been an attendant of Margaret’s cousin, Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk. Margaret was accompanied by her younger son, Charles, Earl of Lennox, whilst Bess had the company of her daughter by her second marriage, Elizabeth Cavendish.

According to later testimony, Margaret fell ill during the visit, and Bess was so busy caring for her that no one had time to supervise Elizabeth and Charles, who apparently fell violently in love, and conducted themselves in such a way as to render immediate marriage necessary. Before long, news of this sudden match reached the ears of the queen, Elizabeth I, who was, predictably, furious. Charles was in line of succession to the English throne, and was also the brother-in-law of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was being held under permanent house arrest under the wardenship of Bess’s husband. Margaret was despatched to the Tower of London for her third stint behind its walls, and Shrewsbury was obliged to write exculpatory letters on behalf of his wife to the queen and her council.

Although Elizabeth had previously shown herself adamantine in her refusal to forgive clandestine marriages by members of the royal family (Katherine Grey being the most salient example), in this case, she accepted the marriage, probably to keep Shrewsbury sweet – the burden of the care of the Queen of Scots being a heavy one.

Charles and Elizabeth produced one child, Arbella, before his early death. Arbella was now, in theory, Countess of Lennox (a Scottish title), and recognised as such by Queen Mary, who sent her gifts. Margaret wrote that she hoped one day Arbella would be able to serve Mary. However, Mary had no power to control events in Scotland, and with Arbella being only two years old, and with no friends to uphold her rights in Scotland, there was nothing Mary, Elizabeth Lennox, or Margaret could do to prevent the lands of the earldom being seized. Shortly after, the earldom itself was taken from Arbella and vested in her father’s uncle, Robert, who later surrendered it to Esmé Stuart, a distant cousin, and the favourite of Arbella’s paternal cousin, James VI of Scotland. Margaret ignored this, and commissioned a painting of her granddaughter, with the title Countess of Lennox.

As if this were not loss enough, in 1578, Margaret died, and Elizabeth I took possession of the English Lennox estates to cover outstanding debts to the Crown. Margaret left some twenty or so valuable pieces of jewellery to her granddaughter, but the countess’s executor, Thomas Fowler, took the jewels to Scotland. Commands from Queen Mary to Fowler to return them to Arbella fell on deaf ears and they were handed over to King James. Arbella, now with no inheritance of her own, beyond a small estate worth £300 per annum, went with her mother to live with Bess, who was usually resident in Derbyshire. Bess was an indefatigable letter-writer and petitioner, and eventually persuaded the queen to give the little girl an annual allowance for her maintenance. The sum of £400 was agreed, which was adequate for a junior member of the nobility, but by no means lavish. It was supplemented by the £200 per annum granted by the queen to Arbella’s mother, but that ceased on Elizabeth Lennox’s death in 1582. The queen did, however, accede to Elizabeth’s request to allow Bess to have the guardianship of Arbella, rather than granting it to one of her courtiers.

Bess now took full responsibility for the little girl, and immediately tried to improve her financial position by bombarding Elizabeth I’s chief minister, Lord Burghley, and her secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, with requests for Arbella’s income to be enhanced by the £200 previously granted to her mother. It was important, Bess told them, for Arbella to be educated and brought up to fit her to serve the queen – an expensive business, which would require the little girl to have a thorough humanist and courtly education. However, the additional money was not forthcoming. Bess did the best she could – using her well-honed financial skills to enhance Arbella’s income and capital.

The Queen of Scots also interested herself in her little niece. She continued her attempts to have Arbella recognised as Countess of Lennox, and when she made her final will, before her execution, she bequeathed Arbella her own treasured French Book of Hours.